Recently, young women in Malawi, Africa, were given clothing from the student and faculty volunteers from Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions and the staff of the World of Difference. With smiles of gratitude and excitement, the girls and young women received dresses lovingly handmade in Vineyard, Utah, by Arda Molen. What the girls didn’t realize was Arda’s right hand was severely damaged from years of sewing thousands of dresses. Dresses she donated to several organizations to distribute in locations around the world.
The damage caused by the repetitive motions of sewing required surgery to correct Arda’s hand earlier this month. To her, the difficulties of her hand are worth the joy she feels knowing girls are benefiting from her efforts. Girls who, in many cases, are receiving their very first dress.
“Arda’s work is the fulfillment of her dream to serve young people she doesn’t even know,” said Dr. Richard P. Nielsen, co-founder and president of World of Difference, and founding president of RMUoHP and the Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine (proposed). “Each year, we are in a blessed position to serve the people of Africa. We have the opportunity of witnessing the joy and happiness expressed by young girls receiving the dresses Arda has sewn by hand.”
Nielsen estimates they have given nearly 1,000 of Arda’s dresses over the past few years. He and a group of volunteers comprised of students, faculty, and staff from RMUoHP and other local participants travel to Africa each year. This year they were in Malawi, Africa where they spent a few weeks working alongside local chiefs, leaders, and others serving children by renovating dilapidated existing schools and building a primary school and library stocked with items, helping the kids in local orphanages, drilling a bore-hole water well in the local village where they worked, working on permaculture initiatives, and other service oriented activities to help provide new opportunities for the people there.
They also provided clinical experiences for RMUoHP students, faculty and other healthcare professionals. In addition to Arda’s dresses, Nielsen and his wife, Jodi, and the World of Difference team took 6,000 pounds of educational supplies and materials, tools, athletic equipment, and partnering with Days for Girls International, provided feminine hygiene kits to use in the orphanages.
Arda Molen holding one of about 5,000 dresses she has made for girls in need around the world. Photo by A. Cory Maloy
Arda, an experienced seamstress, began sewing in earnest all of the dresses she could about four years ago after sustaining substantial injuries from a car accident. Since she faced a long-term recovery following the crash, she made a decision to do something to help others during and following her recuperation.
“I decided instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I would do something for somebody who was worse off than me,” she said. “And that’s when I started [making the dresses]. I just did it.”
For four years since then, that’s about all she has done. She sews dresses six to eight hours per day and estimates she has made about 5,000 dresses.
Arda, the seamstress, and Nielsen, the university president, and humanitarian make a unique team that serves underprivileged children, orphans or victims of sex crimes in different parts of the world.
“We work with a few different orphanages in Malawi, where we distribute Arda’s dresses to young girls,” said Nielsen. “There’s just no money over there that is available to support those kids. They usually wear clothing they’ve been wearing for many months and even years. They get holes in them, they are too big or too small, and often unclean.
“Arda takes t-shirts and then makes skirts that attach to the shirts and turns them into dresses,” said Nielsen. “I’ve raised five kids and seen the excitement on Christmas morning in their eyes, but nothing compares to the excitement among these girls as they receive Arda’s dresses. It’s one of the best things they’ve ever received in their young lives. It truly makes a difference.”
Nielsen is quick to point out Arda has literally given her hands and soul to helping these young girls throughout the world. “The work she does is so important and helps so many people who are so less fortunate than all of us,” he said.
In addition to distributing the dresses, Nielsen and the World of Difference volunteers distribute additional clothing and items to both girls and boys in the orphanages they visit in Malawi. They receive the clothing from various people and organizations to distribute to kids from ages four to 20 who benefit from these clothing donations.
Arda Molen after surgery to correct her hand injured from the repetitive nature of sewing about 5,000 dresses over the past four years for needy girls in other parts of the world. Photo by A. Cory Maloy
Sewing 5,000 dresses over the years has taken a toll on Arda. She has gone through three sewing machines and currently uses her “faithful Bernina.” The repetitive motions of sewing, cutting material, and other actions using mostly her right hand created a situation where she was in great pain. Pain caused by the rubbing of bone-on-bone, worn-out cartilage, and strained ligaments resulted in two different surgeries in her hand to correct the issues.
“The constant repetition just wore my hand out,” she said. “It ached clear up past my elbow, and the pain never stopped. I could only sleep about an hour at a time due to the pain.”
Arda reports the surgeries were a success. Following a time of recuperation, she looks forward to getting back to work on making more dresses. In the meantime, other people she knows are working to help her keep the dressmaking going.
The partnership between Arda and Nielsen and the World of Difference volunteers brings joy and happiness to many young people in different parts of the world. The question has to be asked, though, what drives them to do it?
According to Nielsen, it’s a culture and attitude of service to others that comes from within. “Honestly, you don’t have to go around the world or across the oceans to do the type of service we do. You can do it around your neighborhood corners or across the back fence. There are people we can serve all around us. You don’t have to go out of your way to serve someone – you can simply do it on your way.”
Nielsen points out about 609,000 people are living in Utah County, Utah, and about 72,000 of them live below the poverty line.
“That’s why our Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions Foundation started free clinics to help the indigent, under-served, non-insured and those without the means to receive the healthcare they need,” he said. “These people are in poverty, they’re under-resourced and have no means to pay for these services, just as the people in Africa are. We need to reach out to them to help give them opportunities they wouldn’t typically have.
“There is a peaceful feeling that just comes over you in helping others. We have all experienced it. We all have the opportunity to serve and help others here in our communities as well as in other parts of the world,” said Nielsen.
For Arda, who has no intention of slowing down her dressmaking, the story is similar, but also different. She has seen and heard the stories of horrific conditions young girls have gone through and has a strong desire to help them and bring them happiness. She keeps a folder of pictures of all the dresses she has made. Among them are photos sent to her of girls wearing her dresses. One shows four girls rescued from sex trafficking.
“When I get tired, and when my hand hurts really bad, I look at that picture,” said Arda. “Their smiles remind me [my discomforts] are nothing compared to what they have gone through. So, I just keep going. I kept going for four years. The swelling, the ripped ligaments, and the pain are all worth it when I see those smiling faces. I know they and many other girls are receiving help and happiness with some of the work I do.”
By Cory Maloy, Maloy PR